Man and ape have much more in common than you think, argues USC primatologist Craig Stanford in his latest book, Significant Others. Anthropologists, linguists and psychologists have downplayed these similarities, but a growing body of evidence tells its own tale.
Much of culture is the accumulation of thousands of such small differences. Put a suite of traditions together religion, language, ways of dress, cuisine and a thousand other features and you have a culture. Of course cultures can be much simpler too. A group of toddlers in a day care center possesses its own culture, as does a multi-national corporation, suburban gardeners, inner- city gang members. Many elements of a culture are functional and hinged to individual survival: thatched roof homes from the tropics would work poorly in Canada, nor would harpoons made for catching seals be very useful in the Sahara. But other features are purely symbolic. Brides in Western culture wear white to symbolize sexual purity. Brides in Hindu weddings wear crimson, to symbolize sexual purity. Whether white or red is more pure is nothing more than a product of the long-term memory and mindset of the two cultures. And the most symbolic of cultural traditions, the one that has always been considered the bailiwick of humanity only, is language. The words white and red have an entirely arbitrary relationship to the colors themselves. They are simply code names.
Arguing about how to define culture has long been a growth industry among anthropologists. We argue about culture the way the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue about national security: as though our lives depended on it. But given that culture requires symbolism and some linguistic features, can we even talk about culture in other animals?
But I had barely gotten the word culture past my lips when I was made to feel the full weight of my blissful ignorance. The cultural anthropologists practically leaped across the seminar table to berate me for using the words culture and chimpanzee in the same sentence. I had apparently set off a silent security alarm, and the culture-theory guards came running. How dare you, they said, use a human term like cultural diversity to describe what chimpanzees do? Say behavioral variation, they demanded. Apes are mere animals, and culture is something that only the human animal can claim. Furthermore, not only can humans alone claim culture, culture alone can explain humanity. It became clear to me that culture, as understood by most anthropologists, is a human concept, and many passionately want it to stay that way. When I asked if this was not just a semantic difference what are cultural traditions if not learned behavioral variations? they replied that culture is symbolic, and what animals do lacks symbolism.
Years of living cheek-to-jowl with chimps has made Craig Stanford top banana in the world of ape science.
The Astonishing LAGQ